RED ZONE FILES: The darkest hour

Published January 13, 2022
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks on the floor of the National Assembly. — Photo courtesy NA Twitter/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks on the floor of the National Assembly. — Photo courtesy NA Twitter/File

Islamabad is running a low grade fever. There is weakness, fatigue and body aches but the temperature is not burning. Yet.

It is so draining.

On everyone. The government is burdened with the lethargy of its own mis-governance even as it tries to compensate for its lack of actionable vigour by ramping up the volume of its accusations against rivals. It finds it easier to raise its voice than to raise its finger. To win, it has to survive. That’s the barometer.

The opposition is burdened with the lethargy of its indecision even as it tries to compensate for the lack of its coherence by ramping up the volume of its threats against rivals. It finds it easier to drop broad hints of a deal than to drop the pretense and actually lock a deal. To win, it has to eat its own narrative. That’s the barometer.

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Inside the Red Zone, political enemies are circling each other warily — daggers drawn and swords unsheathed — but none wants to lunge forward and strike the first blow. It is a war dance in slow motion. The stallions are neighing as battle cries reverberate across the hills. But the trumpets have not blared. The charge of the cavalry has not happened.

And it may not. For now. The contentious foreplay is spilling over into the parliament and raising sparks from political embers that are gradually emitting an orange glow. A flame could break out. But it hasn’t yet. There’s just not enough fuel. You can sense the heat and imagine the flame. But it does not burn you. Yet.

Hard to imagine how long this state of coiled tension can last before snapping apart and unleashing a torrent of unpredictable consequences. It is agonisingly difficult for the government to govern when it is haemorrhaging from the inside. It is painfully frustrating for the opposition to put up a spirited challenge when it is weighed down by its own strategic inertia.

Whispers echo against the hush of such inertia and inaction — whispers about the growing lack of trust between key citadels of power, and how loose talk is fanning the flames of such mistrust. Unwise things are said to have been said in private meetings inside the Red Zone about important people. They have trickled out. Such meetings have also witnessed loud thinking about exercising options that are best left unexercised. Such words have a nasty habit of taking on a life of their own even if they do not translate into actions. Loose lips sink ships, goes the old saying. It still holds metaphorical relevance in this day and age.

Strange that responsible people in responsible offices would display such irresponsible behaviour when the stakes are so high. The government’s balance sheet is skewed against it. Still smarting from the drubbing in the KP local body polls, the government knows that it may be walking into a bigger trap in the Punjab LG elections. That’s just one such trap. The economic situation is not expected to ease up till late in the year. If that. The opposition’s street pressure will start to build up in a month or so and begin to consume media oxygen. There’s a change of command happening at the Supreme Court in the first week of the next month. Inside the Red Zone, random events have a strange habit of making non-random patterns. The government knows full well it is venturing into its darkest hour. First light is still a few months away.

It is in this darkest hour — when the night is intense and fears lurk like shadows — that things that should not happen, must not happen, and cannot happen — happen. Like a train entering a tunnel, the politics of this land is plunging into a time-trail of darkness before it emerges back into the glow of day. Some say the time-trail spans two months, others claim three, but almost all agree that the next few weeks will determine whether these unsheathed swords plunge into the soft folds of the flesh, or return to the cold comfort of their scabbards.

Meantime all are going through the motions. The ministers are holding press briefings to present unconvincing arguments about their government’s performance while the opposition leaders are venting their spleens on the floor of the house to compensate for the lack of will to pull the trigger. There will be new cases against the leader of the opposition for optics sake, and there will be new acts of resistance through rallies against the government for optics sake. These will provide fuel for the media and fodder for the public but none will likely translate into the blow that brings the house down.

It is a strange time, this. All can sense the possibilities of what could lie ahead but none can tell whether it will happen. All are weighing options that could present themselves but none can exercise them till they do. The clarity of confusion is casting dark shadows across the Red Zone’s fortifications as the capital plunges deep into the folds of the darkest hour.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2022

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